Did Pope Francis get what he wanted from the synod?

Since the end of the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family, news outlets have portrayed the outcome as a "setback" or "loss" for Pope Francis—even a "rebuke" to him.

Journalists have pointed to the absence, in the synod's final report, of an earlier version's strikingly conciliatory language toward people with ways of life contrary to Catholic teaching, including those in same-sex unions and other non-marital relationships. Commentators have also noted the relatively low support, as measured by bishops' votes on the final document's relevant sections, for continued discussion of whether to make it easier for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

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In these respects, it is said, the synod rejected moves consistent with Pope Francis' well-known teachings on mercy.

The pope never expressed his views at the synod; he kept silent throughout the two weeks of discussions. Yet there are good reasons to think he and the assembly were not of the same mind on these questions.

Pope Francis had invited the author of the Communion proposal, German Cardinal Walter Kasper, and no one else, to address a gathering of the world's cardinals on the family in February. And the synod's controversial midterm report was the work of the pope's handpicked team, who presumably would never have departed from the usual tone of official Vatican documents on moral teaching unless they had understood that to be what the pope wanted. So if they were right, the synod's reaction must have disappointed him.

But at the same time, the pope got just what he asked for: a more assertive synod.

"Maybe it is time to change the methods of the synod of bishops, because it seems to me that the current method is not dynamic. This will also have ecumenical value, especially with our Orthodox brethren. From them we can learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and the meaning of synodality," Pope Francis told an interviewer last year.

Opening the synod's first working session Oct. 6, the pope told participants, "Everyone needs to say what one feels duty-bound in the Lord to say: without respect for human considerations, without fear."

Recalling that some cardinals at the February meeting had reportedly hesitated to speak out for fear of disagreeing with him, Pope Francis said: "This is no good, this is not synodality."

The synod fathers took Pope Francis at his word. In their remarks on the floor of the hall and in their meetings as small working groups, bishops said the midterm report lacked necessary references to Scripture and traditional Catholic teaching, and they demanded extensive changes to the final report.

For decades, critics have complained that the synod is not a true expression of the bishops' collective authority, as rooted in Catholic tradition and reaffirmed by Second Vatican Council. They have characterized it instead as a mere advisory body to the pope. Had the bishops this October simply ratified what they assumed Pope Francis was proposing, it would have been hard to argue anything had changed. It was their very resistance to the pope's perceived wishes that made their self-assertion convincing.

Upon reflection, the pope could hardly have designed a better way to elicit an exercise of collective responsibility from this group—bishops named by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, during whose pontificates they had come to rely on the pope as the ultimate guarantor of orthodoxy—than to confront them with a document that seemed to take traditional teaching for granted.

This is an irony that Pope Francis, who once taught psychology to high school students, was surely well prepared to appreciate, whether or not he anticipated it.

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Joseph Codsi
3 years 1 month ago
I do not know if the Pope got what he wanted. I think he got what he deserved. Let me illustrate this with one example. Speaking of homosexual people, he said: "Who am I to judge?" This was, I suppose, his personal sentiment. The Church, on the other hand, and the Synod as well, condemn homosexuality. Their judgment is very clear. We should not be fooled by the appearance of compassion toward the person. They deal with homosexuality exactly as Jesus dealt with the woman accused of adultery. "I do not condemn you,” he said to her, “Go and sin no more." In other words, people are expected to change their sexual orientation in order to conform to the Church's requirement. I do not know if people have noticed that the Synod speaks of homosexual "tendency". This implies that homosexuality is something that can be corrected. Did the Pope object to this language? Because of this, I say that the bishops and the Pope are very bad thinkers who happen to have very good hearts.
Anne Chapman
3 years 1 month ago
....people are expected to change their sexual orientation in order to conform to the Church's requirement. Historically, the institutional church tends to lag behind when it comes to science, and especially in the human sciences, including both the biological and the psychological. That is one reason it is so confused about contraception and continues to insist on an understanding that no longer can be justified. Similarly, the "Church" does not understand what science has come to understand - one's sexual orientation is inborn. People can no more change their (God-given) sexual orientation than they can change the color of their skin. At one time the church (euro-centric) treated those with darker-than-European skin as "lesser" human beings. The church even frequently defended the practice of slavery, and many church prelates, including popes, bishops and cardinals, owned slaves. The church was wrong. It took almost 2000 years for it to realize this, however. Today the official church treats gay people and women as "second-class" members of the church. Males, mostly white males, and especially males in Roman collars, are the first-class members of the church. Gays are expected by the church to believe that their inborn sexuality is "intrinsically disordered" - that God made a mistake. Women are expected to accept teachings that declare them to be subservient to men, by nature and divine will. Again, the official church is wrong. Francis dare not undo these misguided teachings overnight - but he is trying to make some first steps, at least when it comes to the official church's attitudes towards and pastoral approaches to gay people. The pope does have a good heart - he is also probably a great thinker - too great perhaps and well ahead of those who have trouble with change, with dealing with new understandings. . He may be among those called "prophet" as far the understanding of homosexuality is concerned, and is at least trying to improve the atmosphere in the church, welcoming gay people, gay couples, gay families even if he is not yet able to "develop" the doctrine by himself. Prophets were never heard by most of their people in their own time - many were killed by their people, as we see in the OT.
Jon Evan
3 years ago
To say that the church needs to change its doctrine is like asking a leopard to change its spots! Church doctrine has existed for centuries and was not developed by men but was given by God through the Holy Scriptures. To say doctrine needs to be changed is to say that the practice of the church has been wrong for generations. That can not happen because God's Word is immutable and cannot be changed. Similarly it would be a great wrong to those people who have faithfully applied doctrine to their lives and stopped practicing homosexuality. To tell them they were wrong would be a great injustice because God has blessed them for their obedience.
Michael Barberi
3 years ago
Pope Francis's call for the 2013-2014 Synod on the Family was a bold and courageous move given the fact that the last one was only 34 years ago. To many people, it is clear that Pope believes pastoral changes are necessary with respect to the many issues facing families today. It is also clear that many of the Synod Fathers were conferred as bishops by JP II and Benedict XVI, who for the most part can be described as more conservative and orthodox. Hence, it is not surprising that the first report of the Synod was carefully worded. It will be the more important second report that will influence Pope Francis, and it is not certain just how much such a report will be used in Pope Francis's Apostolic Exhortation. If minor changes in pastoral practices springs forth on the many issues under consideration, some may claim that Tradition has been upheld and there was no need for development. Others may say that the Synod Fathers were not sufficiently listening to priests, theologians and the laity. Fortunately, we have another year of further debate, reflection, prayer and more listening to the Holy Spirit before any decisions are made. I am cautiously optimistic that substantive changes in pastoral practices will be put forth in Pope Francis's much anticipate Apostolic Exhortation. If we only hear a repeat of teachings and minor changes in pastoral practices, then it would be reasonable to assume that the profound non-reception of many teachings will continue. That would be truly disheartening to most Catholics.

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